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An Arts Leader Lifts the Baton One Last Time

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Washington Choral Arts Society Artistic Director Norman Scribner will lift his baton one final time this month as he bids farewell to the company he founded more than 45 years ago.
Choral Arts Society of Washington
Washington Choral Arts Society Artistic Director Norman Scribner will lift his baton one final time this month as he bids farewell to the company he founded more than 45 years ago.

After 47 years, Norman Scribner is stepping down as the artistic director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington. But, before he takes his last bow, Scribner and his friends are planning a grand finale--in the form of a concert.

The concert will take place June 13 at the National Cathedral and will capture key moments from Scribner's storied career.

"We're all a community of music lovers here in service to the same goal and have been for decades," says Scribner. "And hopefully will be for decades."

Scribner, the son of a Methodist minister, says his earliest musical memories come from his father's church in Baltimore. "Standing behind the organist, marveling at his feet flying and his fingers flying, I wanted my whole life to be music. And it hasn't changed since them."

In the early 1960s, Scribner moved to Washington, where he lead the American University Chorale, served as a musical staff assistant at the National Cathedral, and became choirmaster at St. Alban's Episcopal Church.

"The miracle of classical music is that it reaches the very deepest part of our being that can be reached," he says.

Then, in 1965, Scribner auditioned community singers for a volunteer choir to perform Handel's Messiah with the National Symphony Orchestra. But the choristers and audience were so enthusiastic he decided to form a permanent organization.

"The Choral Arts Society of Washington is a symphonic chorus of about 170 people who sing in the Kennedy Center, mostly, frequently with the National Symphonic Orchestra," says Chorus president Larry Kolp. "Unofficially, we're one of the best choruses in town."

The chorus has performed in Washington and around the world, including the opening concert of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall in 1971 and a tour of Russia in 1993.

"I think one thing that stands out is our trip to Moscow with Mstislav Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra," Kolp says. "One hundred thousand people standing in Red Square for the concert."

In addition, every year, the chorus pays tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a special concert.

"There are multiple people in the choir who've told me they consider this to be their church. And once a week they come where they're around friends and doing something really meaningful," says chorus member Elizabeth Romig.

"It's been a glorious ride," says Scribner who is stepping down to spend time with his family and focus on composition. Scott Tucker, a choral music director from Cornell University, will take the helm.

"Norman is a truly magnificent individual who had an amazing vision," says longtime chorus member Anne Keiser. "I'll miss everything about Norman and I'll welcome everything about Scott."

"I think I got my tears out, and, hopefully, this can just be a celebration," adds Romig.

J. Reilly Lewis will open the concert at the great organ console of the Cathedral, performing J.S. Bach's "Fantasy in G minor" in honor of Scribner and his first mentor, Paul Callaway.

Michael McCarthy, director of music at the Cathedral, will conduct Sir Hubert Parry's setting of "I Was Glad When They Said Unto Me" and Randall Thompson's "Alleluia."

Guest conductor Robert Shafer will lead the chorus in "Christ Our Passover" and "A Child My Choice," by Richard Wayne Dirksen.

Stanley J. Thurston, founding music director of the Heritage Signature Chorale, will lead his singers in Norman Dello Joio's "A Jubilant Song," followed by the spiritual "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord," presented by the combined choirs.

The two choirs will then sing Milton Biggham's "God Said He Would Heal the Land," featuring pianist and vocalist Ralph Herndon at the keyboard.

Joseph Holt will remain at the keyboard to accompany soprano Janice Chandler Eteme, a favorite guest artist, in "O Patria Mia" from Verdi's Aida. He will then conduct the chorus in Mozart's "Laudate Dominum," with Chandler Eteme as soloist, accompanied by Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez.

Scribner will conclude the concert with "In Paradisum" from Requiem by chorus member Paul Leavitt, a work that premiered in France in 2009. Leavitt will accompany the choristers on the Cathedral organ.

The final selections will be "Magnificat" and "Ave Maria" from Rachmaninoff's Vespers, pieces the singers first performed in 1980 with Mstislav Rostropovich.

"I just want to show the beauty of the chorus with a piece they know really well and sing beautifully, and just step down and fade away and meet everybody in another life," Scribner says.

[Music: "Let's Misbehave" by Irving Aaronson's Commandeers from 1928 Cole Porter Collection]

Photos: Choral Arts


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